King John Gets Too Big for His Britches: Hello Magna Carta
“No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
The Magna Carta is the inspiration for many existing laws ensuring individual rights and accountability of those in power. For a declaration that was intended as a practical measure to solve a temporary problem, its staying power and influence has been remarkable.
The spark that led to the Magna Carta occurred on May 12, 1215, when King John’s nobles rose in rebellion against him. King John took the whole “divine right of kings” thing very seriously. He taxed his subjects to the point of extortion and doled out royal justice as he saw fit. That is until his misrule became unbearable and the pissed-off peerage came gunning for his ass.
Rebellion against English kings was nothing new, but this was the first time its purpose wasn’t getting a new claimant on the throne. In this instance, the barons meant to end King John’s oppressive system of government. In January 1215, they pledged to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm,” and by May, the King was backed into a corner.
The Magna Carta was based on other charters granted by past English kings, particularly King Henry I in 1100. He promised to rule justly, grant the Church more financial autonomy, and reduce royal interference in noble marriages and inheritances. These were mainly empty promises, but they served as an outline for the barons in 1215.
There was one crucial difference though— the document of 1100 was an offer from a King to his nobles. The document drafted in 1215 was a demand from the nobles to their King.
The Magna Carta’s original intent was to serve as a peace treaty, but it failed to prevent war between the King and the barons. Fighting broke out in September 1215. Although John signed the Magna Carta, he immediately wrote to Pope Innocent III, whining about how he only did it under extreme duress. The Pope annulled the Magna Carta and excommunicated all the rebels. However, in 1225 the new king Henry III introduced an abridged version as his coronation charter.
The Magna Carta contained basic legal and human rights parameters that still exist today, such as the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and the concept that justice should not be unnecessarily delayed. It paved the way for the United States Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But its grandest purpose was to establish that no-one was above the law and that even the Sovereign must acknowledge and abide by that.